The Aesthetic of Renunciation - Gilbert & Gubar

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The Aesthetic of Renunciation – Chapter 15 GILBERT, Sandra M. & GUBAR, Susan. The madwoman in the attic: the woman writer and the nineteenth-century literary imagination. New Haven & London : Yale University Press, 2000, p. 539-580 The woman’s hair, my sister, all unshorn, Floats back disheveled strength in agony, Disproving thy man’s name . . . Elizabeth Barret Browning It seemed to me, reviewing the story of Shakespeare’s sister as I had made it . . . that any woman born with a great gift in t
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  The Aesthetic of Renunciation – Chapter 15GILBERT, Sandra M. & GUBAR, Susan. The madwoman in the attic : the woman writer and the nineteenth-century literary imagination. New Haven & London : Yale University Press, 2000, p. 539-580 The woman’s hair, my sister, all unshorn,Floats back disheveled strength in agony,Disproving thy man’s name . . .- Elizabeth Barret BrowningIt seemed to me, reviewing the story of Shakespeare’ssister as I had made it . . . that any woman born with agreat gift in the sixteenth century would certainly havegone crazed . . . For it needs little skill in psychology to besure that a highly gifted girl who had tried to use her giftfor poetry would have been so thwarted and hindered . . .that she must have lost her health and sanity to a certainty.- Virginia Woolf Had Mrs. Dickinson been warm and affectionate . . . Emily Dickinson in early life would probably have identified withher, become domestic, and adopted the conventional woman’s role. She would then have become a churchmember, active in community affairs, married, and hadchildren. The creative potentiality would of course stillhave been there, but would she have discovered it? Whatmotivation to write could have replaced the incentive given by suffering and loneliness?- John Cody  “Who shall measure the heat and violence of the poet’s heart when caughtand tangled in a woman’s body?” Virginia Woolf exclaims halfway through  A Room of One’s Own . She has been telling the story of her imaginary butparadigmatic woman poet, “Judith Shakespeare”, the great male bard’s“wonderfully gifted sister.” Like her brother Will, Woolf speculates, Judith wouldhave run off to London to become a poet-playwright, for “the birds that sang inthe hedge were not more musical than she was.” Unlike Will, however, Judith would quickly have found that her only theatrical future lay in the exploitation of her sexuality. Woolf reminds us that Nick Greene, The Elizabethan actor-manager, said “A woman acting put him in mind of a dog dancing”, and obviously  1  a woman writing was even more ludicrously unnatural. The same Nick Greenehowever, or so Woolf’s story runs, would have been very willing to use JudithShakespeare sexually. He “took pity on her,” Woolf notes dryly; “she foundherself with child by [him] and so – who shall measure the heat and violence of the poet’s heart when caught and tangled in a woman’s body? – she killed herself one winter’s night and lies buried at some crossroads where the omnibuses now stop outside the Elephant and Castle.”In this miniature novella of literary seduction and betrayal, Woolf definesa problem that is related to, but not identical with, the subject of “women andfiction” which triggers her extended meditation on the woman question in  A Room . As she points out . . . , England has had . . . “many learned women, notmerely readers but writers of the learned languages.” More specifically, bothEnglish and American literary histories record the accomplishments of numerousdistinguished women prose writers – essayists, diarists, journalists, letter- writers, and (specially) novelists. Indeed, beginning with Aphra Behn and burgeoning with Fanny Burney, Anne Radcliffe, Maria Edgeworth, and Jane Austen, the English novel seems to have been in good part a female invention. . . And yet, as Barrett Browning mournfully enquired, “where are the poetesses,” theJudith Shakespeares? It is “the poetry that is still denied outlet,” Woolf herself notes sorrowfully, and the only hope she expresses is that Mary Carmichael, theimaginary modern novelist who has replaced Judith Shakespeare, “will be apoet . . . in another hundred years.” Woolf wrote these words in 1928, at a time when there had already been,of curse, many women poets – or at least many women who wrote poetry. . . . Why, then, did she consider poetry by women somehow problematic in itsessence? . . . We can begin to find answers to these questions by very briefly reviewing some of the ways in which male readers and critics . . . have reacted topoetry by women like Barrett Browning, Rossetti, and Emily Dickinson, a poet whose work one hopes (but cannot be sure) Woolf read. (…)“A friend who is also a literary critic has suggested, not perhaps quiteseriously, that ‘woman poet’ is a contradiction in terms.” (James Reevesintroducing the  Selected Poems of Emily Dickinson in 1959) - . . . [F]rom what 2   Woolf could call the “masculinist” point of view, the very nature of lyric poetry isinherently incompatible with the nature or essence of femaleness.(…) Two of the [most frequent] charges . . . are lack of range – in subject matter, in emotionaltone – and lack of a sense of humor. And one could, in individual instances among writers of real talent, add other aesthetic and moral shortcomings: the spinning out; theembroidering of trivial themes; a concern with the mere surfaces of life – that specialprovince of the feminine talent in prose – hiding from the real agonies of the spirit;refusing to face up to what existence is; lyric or religious posturing; running between the boudoir and the altar; stamping a tiny foot against God or lapsing into a sententiousnessthat implies the author has re-invented integrity; carrying on excessively about Fate,about time; lamenting the lot of the woman; caterwauling; writing the same poem aboutfifty times, and so on.(Theodore Roethke reviewing the work of his friend -and sometimes mistress- LouiseBogan). . .  Along similar lines, John Crowe Ransom noted without disapproval in a 1956essay about Emily Dickinson that “it is common belief among readers (amongmen readers at least) that the woman poet as a type . . . makes flights into naturerather too easily and upon errands which do not have metaphysical importanceenough to justify so radical a strategy.” Elsewhere in the same essay, describingDickinson as “a little home-keeping person,” he speculated that “hardly . . . more”than “one out of seventeen” of her 1,775 poems are destined to become “publicproperty” (…). Equally concerned with the problematic relationship betweenDickinson’s poetry and her femaleness – with, that is, what seemed to be anirreconcilable conflict between her “gentle” spinsterhood and her fierce art – R.P. Blackmur decided in 1937 that “she was neither a professional poet nor anamateur; she was a private poet who wrote indefatigably, as some women cook orknit. Her gift for words and the cultural predicament of her time drove her topoetry instead of anti-macassars.”…Even in 1971, male readers of Dickinson brooded upon this apparentdichotomy of poetry and femininity. John Cody’s  After Great Pain offers animportant analysis of the suffering that most of Dickinson’s critics and biographers have refused to acknowledge. But his conclusion, part of which we 3  have quoted as an epigraph, emphasizes what he too sees as the incompatibility  between womanly fulfillment and passionate art.…In view of this critical obsession with womanly “fulfillment” – clearly anineteenth-century notion redefined by twentieth-century thinkers for their ownpurposes – it is not surprising to find that when poetry by women has beenpraised it has usually been praised for being “feminine” or, conversely, blamedfor being deficient in “femininity”.* * * Without pretending to exhaust a controversial subject around which wholeschools of criticism swim, we should note that there are a number of genericdifferences between novel-writing and verse-writing which do support the kindsof distinctions Woolf makes, as well as her conclusions about the insanity of suppressed (or even unsuppressed) women poets. For one thing, novel-wring is a useful  occupation, almost –  pace Blackmur – like baking and knitting. Novelshave always been commercially valuable because they are entertaining andtherefore functional, utilitarian, whereas poetry (. . .) has traditionally had littlemonetary value (. . .).That novel-writing was (and is) conceivably an occupation to live by hasalways, however, caused it to seem less intellectually or spiritually valuable than verse-writing, of all possible literary occupations the one to which the nineteenthcentury assigned the highest status. (. . .) Verse-writing – associated withmysterious “inspiration”, divine status, bardic ritual – has traditionally been aholy vocation. From the Renaissance to the nineteenth century the poet had aprivileged, almost magical role in most European societies, and “he” had a quasi-priestly role after Romantic thinkers had appropriated the vocabulary of theology for the realm of aesthetics. But in Western culture women cannot be priests (. . .).How then – since poets are priests, can women be poets? As Woolf shows, though, novel-writing is not just a “lesser” and thereforemore suitably female occupation because it is commercial rather than aesthetic,practical rather than priestly. The novel, until the twentieth century a genre 4
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